A Lake County power couple has allegedly been breaking state campaign finance laws for years, allowing the pair — who sit on the Lake County Board and Lake Forest City Council — to take in more campaign contributions than legally allowed, including from Republican mega donors Dick and Liz Uihlein.
But the violations went unnoticed for more than three years, according to a new complaint filed by good government advocacy group Reform for Illinois.
The complaint centers around Lake County Board member Mike Rummel and his wife, Lake Forest Alderman Melanie Rummel, who have been sharing a political action committee since 2017, using it in roughly the same manner as candidate committees.
However, the distinction has allowed them to take in more political contributions than they should be allowed. The Rummels say they were just following advice directly from the Board of Elections.
RFI Executive Director Alisa Kaplan said her group’s complaint is bigger than the Rummels’ alleged campaign finance violations, and gets to the heart of campaign finance oversight in Illinois. The 3.5-year gap between when the violations began and when her group filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections is emblematic of the elections board’s role as a reactive body, rather than a proactive one, Kaplan said.
“There are many of us…who would like to see the State Board of Elections take a more proactive role in ferreting out issues like this,” Kaplan said. “I think we all understand that would take a fundamental change in the way the State Board of Elections operates, and it would be a big undertaking.”
In Illinois, candidates for all levels of elected office must file paperwork with the State Board of Elections if they raise more than $5,000 for a race, so their fundraising is public. Candidates must maintain these individual candidate committees, and file quarterly reports on their finances, until closing out the committee, typically after leaving office.
According to the complaint and state campaign finance records, Mike Rummel formed his individual candidate committee before running for Lake County Board in 2011. After his election in 2012, Rummel maintained his committee, Citizens for Rummel, until early 2017.
When Rummel’s wife Melanie ran for Lake Forest City Council in the spring of 2017, Rummel added his wife’s political fundraising to his individual candidate committee in January 2017. Two months later, however, the Rummels converted the individual candidate committee to a political action committee, which can take in more money from individual donors.
Among those donors are Dick and Liz Uihlein, who have given millions to Republicans and conservative causes in recent years, including President Donald Trump and former Gov. Bruce Rauner, until giving money to rightwing challenger State Rep. Jeanne Ives in the 2018 primary.
In the past three years, the Uihleins have given $43,300 to the Rummels, including more than $10,000 in a contribution from Liz Uihlein in August, according to campaign finance records.
Those individual contributions to the Rummels’ PAC surpass the campaign contribution limit on individuals who give to an individual candidate committee.
Kaplan said the contribution limits, most recently updated in 2009, are supposed to prevent a single donor from contributing an amount that can “unduly influence” an elected official.
“When you get wealthy individuals like the Uihleins, who have virtually unlimited funds to spend on supporting candidates, that’s exactly what the contributions limits on a candidate committee are supposed to stop," Kaplan said.
But the Rummels claim they were just following the advice of a Board of Elections official. Rummel campaign spokesman Brad Goodman said the couple sought counsel from the Board of Elections in early 2017 when Mike and Melanie Rummel moved to share a candidate committee, and “were told it was allowed.”
In March of that year, the Board of Elections sent a letter explaining the candidate committee would need to convert to a PAC, which the Rummels did, later renaming the PAC to be in compliance with Board of Elections naming conventions. Goodman said the PAC has “had no issues since.”
“This is a completely inaccurate and politically motivated move to create a fictional negative narrative during campaign season,” Goodman said.
But RFI, which is nonpartisan, said the the issue is bigger than just the Rummel duo.
“The concern is if this goes unanswered — if the State Board of Elections doesn’t act in this case — then how many more candidates and elected officials will decide, ‘Well, why should I have a candidate committee and deal with these smaller contribution limits? I could just have a PAC and take in twice or three times the amount of money.’”
Kaplan acknowledged the current setup of the Board of Elections is most often responsive to opposition research from a candidate’s opponent, and would likely need a much larger staff to proactively search for campaign finance violations. However, she suggested the Board of Elections could implement random audits in order to curb candidates from attempting to game the system — or even candidates who misunderstand the laws.
Goodman said the Rummels would “gladly comply” if the Board of Elections asked them to change their PAC structure again.
Elections board spokesman Matt Dietrich declined to comment on the substance of the complaint, saying the Board of Elections had yet to receive it via mail.
“When the complaint is filed, it will go through the hearing process,” Dietrich said.